The dozens of countries promoting themselves with lavish stands and pavilions at Mipim 2017, an international property event that took place on the French Riviera in mid-March, had to compete for attention with the spectacular scenery outside the convention centre. And despite the ebullient pitches about the tourism and lifestyle assets of their home markets, many of them can be forgiven for looking with some envy at their host location. An exception, however, might be Montenegro, with its turquoise waters, ruggedly beautiful coastline, glamorous marinas and Mediterranean climate. 

Pavle Radulović, minister of sustainable development and tourism, was at the Montenegro stand happily rhapsodising about the beauty of his country while serving Montenegrin wines. He has good reason for the buoyant mood.

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Montenegro welcomed nearly 1.7 million international tourist arrivals in 2016, up from 798,000 in 2006, according to statistics agency Monstat. Visitor numbers have seen steady year-on-year growth over the past decade with little sign of letting up. 

Major sector

“We cannot compete [with] heavy industry, we’re too small. One industry we can compete in is tourism and we have very good tools for it. The contribution of tourism to our GDP is growing rapidly and we intend to make it an even bigger portion. It is a top development opportunity for the country and we want to bring it up to where it belongs,” says Mr Radulović.

According to fDi Markets, hotels and tourism have accounted for 36% of all greenfield foreign investment coming into Montenegro since 2003 at nearly $2bn – twice as much as the second largest sector, coal, oil and natural gas.

Russia accounts for the largest number of international visitors to Montenegro, followed by neighbouring Serbia. Those from further afield are only now starting to take notice, but accolades from international travel publications such as Lonely Planet are creating buzz. Air links are still not as strong as they would need to be to broaden the tourist base and keep up with the growing interest, however.

“We have two international airports in this tiny country [in Podgorica and Tivat] so there is potential [for better air links], but they are state-owned and need to be modernised. So we’re working on a plan with the World Bank for how to put them out to concession and find a developer to modernise them. We want to be in a position to serve 60 to 70 destinations,” says Mr Radulović.

Maintaining high standards

But at the same time, Montenegro is cautious about opening the floodgates to mass tourism, preferring instead to solidify its reputation as a high-end destination and build on existing assets while creating higher value and more reliable income from the sector. The government’s official tourism development strategy, which was published in 2008 and extends through to 2020, stresses the importance of sustainability and pledges to focus on attracting “not just foreign investors, but the right kind of foreign investors, with the resources, experience, integrity and know-how to realise our shared vision”.

Showcased at Mipim, on the Montenegro stand, was the Portonovi resort, which is under construction and set for completion later this year. It includes a One & Only branded hotel, Europe’s first, which is just the type of elite establishment Montenegro wants to foster.  

“The primary idea is to keep tourism alive all year round, to connect pre-season and post-season in summer with pre-season and post-season in winter,” says Mr Radulović. “But what we want most of all is for a certain level of standards to be developed. It’s very easy to attract investment. We don’t want someone to come in and build a development, sketchpad in hand, and not know what to do with it. We want someone to build it up to [high] standards, someone who knows what to do with it.”